Popcorn Noises

Sean R. Nyffeler lives in Brooklyn, NY and writes about music.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Anonymous: Sooooo where'd you go?

I’m still here!

There have been life things taking up all of my attention and most of my free time the last month. Chief among them is my wedding (now less than three months away), but some things have shifted at my job too, leaving me less time to listen/read/research/think/write overall.

With the pieces I’ve written this summer, I’ve discovered that it’s incredibly hard to find things that are not being talked about right now and that I feel I can still offer some insight beyond whatever historical or contemporary consensus is already out there. The garage rock revival piece, for instance, was something I’d started about a year and a half ago and only recently felt ready to finish (and there are still things I would change if I were pitching it elsewhere). The late-90s pop rock piece started as a semi-nostalgic playlist I made just to see how many songs from that era I could still remember. This kind of inspiration is something you have to nurture and I’ve had less time to devote to that recently. The world of music gets a lot smaller and murkier when you decide you’re not going to write about FKA Twigs or, I dunno, The Beatles. Covered ground has its own gravity, especially on the internet, and drifting outside those orbits is easier said than done.

But I’m still here! And I still aspire to write things that are interesting and unique and compelling. So don’t count me out.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Hate to Say They Told You So: Garage Rock Revival in the Early 2000s

For about three years in the early 2000s, there was a lot of talk in the mainstream music press about a garage rock revival centered around four bands with prominent hits at the time: The Strokes, The White Stripes, The Vines, and The Hives. The cover of Rolling Stone for the September 2002 issue said “ROCK IS BACK!” in big bold letters while SPIN and NME talked about a “new rock revolution.” NME even called The Strokes the “saviours of rock ‘n’ roll” (though, to be fair, NME seems to find at least one band a year to saddle with that particular job). While each of these bands—and the gaggle of second-tier acts that followed them—had at least one internationally charting song and did seem to share an affinity for the visceral, simplistic pleasures of rock music, there was a sense that this ‘revolution’ was an invention of the music press, that they’d seized on hype and made kings out of cavemen because the music these bands were producing stood in clear opposition to the tired, bloated post-grunge and nu-metal that was dominating rock radio. You might even call it the last big, hyperbolic moment these older publications had before the Pitchfork-led internet became the definitive new engine of attention with the next wave of ascendant indie bands.

There’s a lumbering-dinosaur quality to the early ’00s garage rock revival. You have these old, long-standing publications that, by this time, were losing a lot of their cultural cache with American youth, praising bands that were wallowing unapologetically in classic styles of rock. All the ‘savior’ talk was predicated on the idea that these retro bands were bringing the fun, sexy, cool, stylish, pop elements back to guitar music, or rather a version of them that had been forgotten in the self-serious wake of grunge. There was also a historic surge of creative, forward-thinking R&B sweeping the pop charts around this time, so it wasn’t that surprising for a simultaneous back-looking trend to emerge. It’s easy to see how kids (white teenage boys in my experience) got excited about this stuff. As fads go, it was pretty perfect for its 15 minutes in the sun. The real heyday was in 2002, when all the press coverage happened and the four biggest bands all had their biggest hits. The moment had passed by ’04. Jet’s lame, shallow, stupid single “Are You Gonna Be My Girl,” a straight Iggy Pop “Lust for Life” clone, was the biggest nail in the coffin for most people who cared about this stuff (and this was in a genre where you could get away with being stupid and shallow if you were cool enough!). There was a sister ‘revival’ happening in those years that was all about new-wave/post-punk/dance-rock styles, starting with Interpol, The Rapture, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs but going into The Killers, Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party, et al. For a minute, though, the big garage rock revival bands were commodities of cool, getting radio play, press attention, and enjoying their youthful rock star moments.

The Strokes were the first and the biggest. They were prep school chums who got together in the late 90s and started gigging around the Lower East Side, taking a lot of cues from bands that had made that part of New York a musical hotbed in the 70s. Press bios always compared them to The Velvet Underground, mostly because of the Lou Reed-esque mid-range filters they put on Julian Casablancas’ voice, I think. They really sounded much more like Television, especially on Is This It, but talking about the VU was a better way to position them within the cool NYC rock continuum because everyone knows you’re supposed to love and revere the Velvets. The Strokes were absolutely doused in hype. As I mentioned above, British music rags went nuts for them, and when “Last Nite” became a hit on both sides of the Atlantic, the band blew up. It helped that they were all terminally hip, stylish, and disaffected, with greasy hair, ratty sneakers, leather jackets, and dangling cigarettes. I personally love their first two albums (and can’t argue with Is This It being considered the most important rock record of the 2000s), but it’s hard to escape the sense that what The Strokes really brought to the table—the thing that made them valuable figureheads of this fad—was their ineffable cool. Even in their heyday, there were so many easy ways to criticize them. You could point out how they were phony rich kids, musically derivative, sonically deceitful (making a cruddy-sounding album with non-cruddy means), lazily nostalgic, preening, self-involved (read the lyrics), fashion victims, hype beneficiaries, etc. and until about 2003 when their second album, Room on Fire, wasn’t as big a hit, all of it just seemed to roll off their backs. That’s a huge, important thing to understand about what this cultural moment meant. In many ways, it was a recognition of the power of cool, of how nothing else about a band really has to matter if they have that certain, slippery, magical aura. It never lasts, though, and The Strokes took a pretty big nose dive with a difficult, over-macho third album that nearly tanked their career. Even so, they were basically the biggest rock band of the decade.

“When we first started playing we were like, ‘What’s going to be the new kind of cool music? I wonder if anything cool could still come out?’ We wanted to see if we could find out.” - Julian Casablancas in NME

"I heard a rumour that no one actually comes to our shows and that we only exist in magazines." - Nick Valensi in The Face

The White Stripes were a close second. In the early days, prior to their ‘04 transition to ‘misunderstood classic rock troubadour’ territory, Jack White still seemed willing to engage pop culture on young, enthusiastic terms. They were shrouded in pettifogging back then, with questions about Jack and Meg’s ‘brother’/’sister,’ husband/wife, divorcee status, rigid but playful peppermint candy color scheme, lack of a bass player, and eye-popping Michel Gondry video. Presentation was just as important to The White Stripes as it was to The Strokes, but The White Stripes placed their extra-musical accouterments much further up front back then. To hear the band tell it, the point was to dodge media attention and deflect it back to their music. But anyone who’s been clocking pop music for more than six months knows a gimmick when they see one, and if all The White Stripes’ press-ready baggage was an attempt at getting people to let the music speak for itself, then it was surely one of the stupidest and most misguided attempts to do so in pop history. The strange thing was the more you understood them and their music, the more you realized how deeply rooted they were in very stodgy, stubborn notions about authentic rock ‘n’ roll. They had the fortune of being from Detroit—Motown’s headquarters and a notorious breeding ground for grimy garage punk bands—but Jack White was also obsessed with the blues, with guys like Robert Johnson and Blind Willie McTell and Charlie Patton. He would say the same things that rock stars have been saying for decades about how ‘real’ and ‘soulful’ this old blues music was and how modern pop was too fake and plastic. Their third album, White Blood Cells, came out in ‘01 and ended up being something of a transitional record for them, even though it was arguably their best. “Fell in Love With a Girl” was a big hit that reveled in cheap, plastic, puppy-love fun. The video was all stop-motion Lego: how much more ‘plastic’ can you get? If The Strokes made a career out of cool, The White Stripes made a career out of contradictions. After 2003, with the release of Elephant and the soccer stadium-conquering “Seven Nation Army,” Jack and Meg left garage rock and fad/pop culture behind, retreating into a kind of heady formalism, and would never really sound like they were having fun ever again.

"The last twenty years have been filled with digital, technological crap that’s taken the soul out of music. The technological metronome of the United States is obsessed with progress, so now you have all these gearheads who want to lay down three thousand tracks in their living room. That wasn’t the point." - Jack White in SPIN

When Rolling Stone emblazoned their Sept. ‘02 issue with “ROCK IS BACK,” it was for a cover story on Sydney, Australia’s The Vines. They were by far the biggest victims of music press hype and, critically, the most divisive of the big standard-bearing bands. That’s saying something, too, since reviews from the time for the other three were at near-universal levels of acclaim. There was something about The Vines that suggested over-calculation and, ultimately, a pose. Lead singer Craig Nicholls’ dad was an accountant for Sony Music in Australia, but beyond undoubtedly advantageous connections, their upbeat rock songs hinged on a faked Kurt Cobain scream and their mellower ‘pop’ songs were blatant Beatles homages. They had terrible lyrics—way too many “Yeah!”s and “Come On!”s—which, again: this was a genre where you could have awful lyrics if you sold the package well enough. Nicholls was presented as an erratic, unstable, unpredictable, substance-abusing wreck. In the late ’00s, after being charged with assault, it was revealed that he actually has Asperger syndrome, but at the time everybody talked about him as a tortured, rebellious inheritor of Cobain’s junkie milieu. Like some of the Britpop bands of the mid-90s whose mantle these garage bands took up, there’s a sense that The Vines were a little too obvious in their ‘real rock’ posturing to be taken so seriously. As blatant a set of critic-baiting influences as The Velvet Underground or The Cramps were for The Strokes and The White Stripes, there’s something about having The Beatles and Nirvana as your only two reference points that crosses a line. It’s tough to talk about artistry with this whole movement because, really, the artistic depth of most of these bands is up for questioning, but to my ears The Vines brought far less musical personality to the table than the other groups of this era. They could check off a long list of cliche rock star prerequisites—which is maybe another reason Capitol invested so much and plugged them so hard—but I think by now even their supporters know they didn’t earn the attention they got by playing music.

"There’s so much good music that’s happening now, and we’re glad to be a part of it, with bands like The Stokes and The White Stripes. I don’t think it’s a movement. It’s just real rock music." ~ Craig Nicholls in Rolling Stone

I’ve been avoiding the word ‘rockism’ thus far because it’s been so overused and numbingly debated in the last ten years, but it does help us understand a set of ideas that were propping this garage rock revival up and making it out to be ‘more’ than it was. Kelefa Sanneh’s famous 2004 New York Times piece on rockism frames it in terms of “idolizing the authentic old legend (or underground hero) while mocking the latest pop star; lionizing punk while barely tolerating disco; loving the live show and hating the music video; extolling the growling performer while hating the lip-syncher.” These garage rock revival bands weren’t actually ‘rockists’, they were pop stars in rockist clothing. They were flashy and ambitious, conspicuous and perfectly tousled, and were never cooler than in their own music videos. But it’s sort of impossible for a retro rock fad to operate outside the notions that define older rock for so many people, at least on the surface. Either by a quirk of history, a changing of the pop guard, or honest to goodness cultural evolution, time has stymied and struck down the firebrand rhetoric of bands and journalists alike. Was rock ‘n’ roll ever a thing to be saved in the first place? And did The Strokes accomplish anything close to that? Is Craig Nicholls the Kurt Cobain of the 00’s? Will the analog blues legacy of The White Stripes outlast the digital ones of, say, Usher or Beyonce? No, no, hahaha no, and probably not.

It wasn’t a movement, it was a moment. The history of pop music is replete with such moments, each with its own looks, musical styles, and cultural impacts. We call them fads, but there’s a lot of condescension built into that term, as if anything with a shelf life of only a few years, months, or minutes wasn’t worth enjoying and exploring fully. My guess is that the hard part for a lot of people who loved these bands isn’t accepting that it was a fad instead of a revolution, but accepting that there’s nothing wrong with fads. From punk rock to grunge, rave, boy bands, and all the way to today’s EDM, the culture of pop music is founded in large part on the quick churn of ideas. Chris Ott, in an episode of his Shallow Rewards video series chronicling the career of Richard Gotteherer and The Strangeloves, talks about the period in the early-to-mid 60s just before The Beatles came out with Rubber Soul, when pop music was treated more as stagecraft than art that needed to be ‘authentic’—“a whole grab-bag of images and ideas.” When you hear about The Strangeloves hiding their identities behind stories of sheep-breeding and silly animal print costumes, or see Paul Revere & The Raiders dressed up in Revolutionary War regalia and galloping in place as they sang, you can start to see why gimmicks like The White Stripes’ color scheme or The Strokes’ NYC punk fashion pedigree are such important parts of the experience. You can start to see how fundamentally built-in they are, and to realize how pop music as stagecraft has never truly gone away. It lurks behind even the most willfully unshowmanlike acts.

It’s on this level that I would argue The Hives were the most honest and historically consistent of the big garage rock revival bands. Starting as a regular old punk band in Fagersta, Sweden but transitioning to an ultra lean, angular, even mechanical garage sound, they took on a kind of all-encompassing level of gimmickry and stage-personhood. They had nicknames that landed somewhere between those of old bluesmen and comic book villains—Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist, Nicholaus Arson, Vigilante Carlstroem, Dr. Matt Destruction, and Chris Dangerous—and they dressed in matching black and white outfits both onstage and off. The songwriting and production on all their albums is credited to a mysterious ‘Randy Fitzsimmons’, who they also say discovered and manages them (I believe that’s supposed to be him obscured in shadow and literally stopping time with the movement of his hand in the above video for “Hate to Say I Told You So”). Combine this invented producer-svengali business with their brash stage antics, goofy videos, and Almqvist’s arrogant Mick Jagger pouting, and you get a glossy, winking, modern rendition of pop-rock from the mid-60s. It rings truer precisely because it takes in the full breadth of the pop world in which garage rock first arose and transposes it into modernity. The Hives didn’t have to make ‘real’ rock because they knew there was never any such thing, and they didn’t have to worry about maintaining their elusive cool because it was all a bunch of put-ons anyway. Most importantly, they had a sense of humor about everything they did, managing to be fun, sexy, cool, and stylish all while putting no stock in whether any of this mattered in the slightest. They’re still at it, too. They keep putting out albums that sound basically the same, wearing the same black and white suits, and strutting around the top bills of the European festival circuit as if their moment had never passed. As the other standard-bearers for the early-00s garage rock revival fold under the weight of unsustainable stardom (The Strokes), bloated ego (The White Stripes), and not living up to the hype (The Vines), it turns out the band with the most classically pop M.O. was the most equipped to keep their own fad going.

“We never wanted to be the next Nirvana. We wanted to be the Hives. Things only happen once. Elvis showed up once, Nirvana showed up once. The Hives showed up once.” ~ Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist in SPIN

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Kyu Sakamoto
"Ue o Muite Arukō" ("Sukiyaki")
(1961 - Japan, 1963 - US+UK)

Here’s a link to a YouTube video of this song with a line-by-line translation of the lyrics. It’s helpful in sorting out some of the thorny cultural issues around this song because…yikes. “Ue o Muite Arukō” was a global hit in the early 60s: the highest-selling single in Japan in ‘61 and, after its release in the US in ‘63, the first and still the only Japanese language single to have ever topped the Billboard Hot 100. It’s sold over 13 million copies worldwide.

When the song crossed over in the western world, it was renamed so that English speakers would have an easier time remembering and saying it. But as we often do, we found a fairly racist and boneheaded way to go about it. Sukiyaki is a Japanese dish with beef and vegetables cooked in thick broth and dipped in raw egg before eating. It’s a traditional winter party food. “Ue o Muite Arukō” means “I Look Up When I Walk,” and the song itself is about crushing heartbreak and loneliness. Kyu Sakamoto sings about keeping his head up when he walks so that tears don’t fall out of his eyes. He imagines happiness and contentment are somewhere out beyond the clouds and among the stars, far from his grasp. He’s haunted by fond memories of past seasons, but in this moment he’s completely alone. It’s a beautifully written song, the kind of thing you could easily picture someone like Patsy Cline singing if it had been written in English. But instead of simply translating the title—thereby encouraging English speakers to look up or translate the lyrics and try to understand the wrenching sentiment of the song—they named it after something you might’ve seen on the menu at a restaurant. As Newsweek said, it would pretty much be like releasing “Moon River” overseas under the title “Beef Stew.”

If you have the translation or even just a vague understanding of the scenario to which the title refers, a non Japanese speaker (like me) can start to recognize a lot of the anguish in Sakamoto’s performance. His vibrato is so quick that it comes off almost like a quiver and his voice cracks between notes on some of the most emotionally intense lines. Yet the music is so jaunty and lighthearted (it’s even got some carefree whistling!) that it conflicts with the lyrics and a lot of the vocal timbre. This is a doubly tragic situation because not only is the emotional meaning of the song lost on westerners, but the re-titling also warps the classic melody and even Sakamoto’s performance into a kind of smiling Japanese caricature. Look at American hits from the early 60s. Musically, “Sukiyaki” fits in perfectly with how pop songs were being written and recorded at this time. There’s nothing about “Ue o Muite Arukō” that even hints at Japanese culture except the language in which it’s sung. It’s a pure pop hit relegated to novelty status, not out of xenophilia (as I suspect much of the western buzz around J-pop and K-pop is), but because westerners couldn’t allow for an Asian singer to participate in the same artistic and cultural conversation.

Ue o Muite Arukō”/”Sukiyaki” has remained a sizable background presence in pop and R&B since its release. It’s been covered countless times around the world, most often with rewritten lyrics. In 1980, soul duo A Taste of Honey released one of the most famous versions, a kind of quiet storm take marred by cheesy, unnecessary, stereotypical Japanese harp sounds. It went to #3 on the Hot 100. Boyz II Men-style R&B group 4p.m. also had a hit in 1994 using the same English lyrics A Taste of Honey had written, and their version strips out all the ethnically shallow musical markers. Selena had a decent hit with a Spanish language version in 1989, and Slick Rick sang a verse from it on Doug E. Fresh’s “La Di Da Di” in ‘85, which has since made its way into songs by Snoop Dogg, Salt-n-Pepa, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Mary J. Blige, and Will Smith. The original version can still be heard occasionally in movies or TV shows, but by now the tune has been so thoroughly absorbed into the collective pop culture ether that we may not even recognize or notice it.

Kyu Sakamoto remained a star singer and actor in Japan after “Ue o Muite Arukō,” but the song was such a massive international hit that nothing else in his career would ever approach its legacy. He died in the crash of Japan Airlines Flight 123 on August 12, 1985—three days before I was born.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Pop-Rock in the Late 90s

By the end of the 1990s, alternative rock as a mainstream flash point had stretched itself out into a very, very thin umbrella term that covered a lot of different sounds. In terms of radio and the charts—both the Hot 100 and ‘Modern Rock’—the arena-sized aftermath of grunge was petering out by ‘96, but it would take a few more years before nu-metal really came to dominate radio and the garage rock fad led by The Strokes and The White Stripes took off. These were also the final years before Napster, a peak point in major label album sales (as well as some of the highest sales of singles since their peak in the early 80s), so there was a lot of financial room for labels to take on upstart bands with maybe a decent song or two and try to make something of them. Because ‘alternative’ as an idea was so broad and ill-defined at this point, there was a fair amount of novelty, miniature fads, and free-flowing crossover between top hits on modern rock radio and the wider pop charts. There seemed to exist a certain brand of artist who fit into the cracks and glued these different worlds together. The term pop-rock has been used perennially to describe bands that do this, but from 1997-1999 there was a slippery yet distinct flavor that seemed to unite them even more.

We’re not talking about ascendant indie bands or, really, anyone with much connection at all to the underground. These were almost all bands with explicit pop ambitions, and as you can see from the above playlist, most of them were one-hit wonders. The songs were upbeat and generally sunny, even when they dealt with darker subjects (“Semi-Charmed Life” is about crystal meth addiction, “The Way” is about an elderly Texas couple who were found dead in a ravine, etc.). In terms of imagery and videos, it was very common for acts at this time to invoke a lot of mid-century suburban Americana: white picket fences, Airstream trailers, driving in convertibles (or, if you’re really young and hip, mopeds), dressing in thrift store bowling shirts or ironic matching suits, and going to pools, beaches, or amusement parks. There was supposed to be a little bit of snark to it—subtly skewering their parents’ generation to position themselves as young, edgy, and ‘alternative’—but it never really came off that way because there was nothing very rebellious or political about the music. Looking at it now, this imagery plays more like jokey homage and warped nostalgia, with a lot of young people having fun the same way young people in America have for decades. Think of it like the way The Simpsons at the time was both a loving mockery of middle America and a fairly straightforward sitcom that appealed directly to it.

Musically, this stuff exists in a kind of middle ground between different sounds that were prevalent at the time. They run the gamut from really simplistic guitar pop like Everclear or Semisonic to what was essentially dance pop from acts like Len or Fatboy Slim, who although he was part of the breakbeat thing that was exploding at this time, was played alongside these pop-rock bands with much higher frequency than, say, The Prodigy or The Chemical Brothers. There were a handful of pop punk bands making big waves on the modern rock and pop charts at this time, as well as a slate of mellower, more acoustic and ‘grown up’ acts that were also scoring hits. Today, a lot these sounds wouldn’t overlap or bleed into each other in the same way that they did on the radio and on MTV or VH1 in the late 90s somewhere under this vague canopy of ‘alternative.’ That’s one of the big reasons I tend to lump them together as a kind of stop-gap genre.

I was in middle school from ’97-’99, so while it’s true that FM radio played a much bigger role in most peoples lives than it does today, it was also my main personal gateway to pop music. At that point, I don’t think my sense of taste was developed enough to distinguish between what I actually liked and disliked and what was a function of social interaction and peer weight. None of this stuff was seen as particularly cool or uncool at my school, but it was more socially acceptable for boys to like Blink-182 and Green Day than, say, Sugar Ray, whose appeal was too close to boy band territory for the comfort of most of us. Besides, Mark McGrath was/is a huge tool and Sugar Ray had inflicted “Fly” on the world, still one of the stupidest and most annoying hits of my lifetime. Fatboy Slim, Semisonic, and Fastball were all OK, but when it came to one-hit wonders most of us preferred the novelty of “Tubthumping” or “One Week.” Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life” was all over TV and movies in those years, so everyone knew it and would hum the “do-do-do, do-dodo-doo” part, but I liked “Jumper” a little bit more because of the drumroll part, which appealed to me as a beginning percussionist. Everybody loved “Sex and Candy.” In the bigger picture, though, these bands weren’t touted as huge favorites. Britney Spears and N’Sync were happening, as well as Puff Daddy, Aaliyah, DMX, and the beginnings of Destiny’s Child, all of which carried far more weight among students at Discovery Middle School.

And hey, it turns out those acts still carry more weight in the history of pop than something like Everclear or Cake. This pop-rock stuff didn’t have a lot of value beyond its moment, not because it wasn’t particularly deep or artistic—though it wasn’t and isn’t—but because there were bigger and more culturally significant things happening elsewhere. The upside to the disposable nature of this music is that you can use it for your own ends as long as it holds up. For me, it evokes memories of the late 90s, but it doesn’t radiate them so brightly that I can’t appreciate these songs as simple, successful pop either. I’m surprised how well the songs on the above playlist still hang together. Some of that comes down to my own editorial picking and choosing—and some of these songs did indeed receive the Pitchfork stamp of approval when they put up their big 90s list a few years ago—but history isn’t going to and doesn’t need to celebrate or even vindicate these bands. They serve as an aesthetic marker for what was happening in music and how Americans were feeling at the end of the 20th century, through good songs and bad ones. Also, when sideburns and soul patches make a comeback in a few years, we can point to this and know why.

Tracklist:

1. Third Eye Blind - “Semi-Charmed Life” - June 17, 1997
2. Everclear - “I Will Buy You A New Life” - September 27 ,1997
3. Marcy Playground - “Sex and Candy” - November 4, 1997
4. Fastball - “The Way” - February 24, 1998
5. Semisonic - “Closing Time” - March 10, 1998
6. Harvey Danger - “Flagpole Sitta” - April 21, 1998
7. Fatboy Slim - “The Rockafeller Skank” - September 22, 1998
8. Cake - “Never There” - October 13, 1998
9. New Radicals - “You Get What You Give” - November 10, 1998
10. Third Eye Blind - “Jumper” - November 24, 1998
11. Fatboy Slim - “Praise You” - February 16, 1999
12. Sugar Ray - “Someday” - June 15, 1999
13. Len - “Steal My Sunshine” - July 22, 1999

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Bananarama
"Cruel Summer"
Bananarama (1984)

Here are some things to keep in mind right at the top: Bananarama have held the world record as the all-female group with the most worldwide chart entries since 1989. When they started out as a trio of fashion-conscious art school pals at the end of the 70s, they were obsessed with punk rock and the new movements that had sprung out of it. They recorded their first demos with former Sex Pistols Steve Jones and Paul Cook, whose rehearsal space they lived above. They sang backup for Iggy Pop. In other words, Bananarama are a formidable presence in the history of the pop charts and they have some real, credible post-punk roots.

"Cruel Summer," released as a single in 1983 but not a top 10 hit until it was featured in The Karate Kid in ‘84, is a pretty fantastic slice of new wave from the latter half of the ‘Second British Invasion’ of the early 80s. It’s got the thundering drums, the glassy guitar, the jaunty synth bass. By burying the lead vocals, it gives you a sense of the stifling heat and isolation the song describes, even as the unison vocals (a signature thing for Bananarama) lend it a cool, steely air. In spite of its catchiness, it’s not a particularly inviting track. There was kind of a snarky, tomboy edge to Bananrama at this point. Look at the video they made for “Cruel Summer”: the band is dressed in overalls and baggy workman shirts, fixing cars in a working class neighborhood (right next to the Brooklyn Bridge, actually) and throwing banana peels at the police.

So in the mid to late 80s—beginning with the massive worldwide success of “Venus" and ending with the departure of Siobhan Fahey—Bananarama morphed into the type of dance pop girl group we might now consider more typical. Brighter, bouncier production, more choreographed dance moves, an increased emphasis on sexual allure and desire. It’s the point at which the cheeky plasticity of new wave (I mean, they called themselves Bananarama for pete’s sake) moves toward the cynical plasticity of corporate dance pop. You can’t call it ‘selling out’ because they’d always been a successful pop band with wide appeal, but it’s as close to it as a group like this can get.

That’s one of the only explanations I can find for the trend-hopping versions of “Cruel Summer” that have been released in the years since. Once Fahey was quickly replaced by Jacquie O’Sullivan, Bananarama released “Cruel Summer ‘89,” which was basically a new jack swing remix of the original done by Freddy Bastone. It’s packed with slap bass, orchestra hits, and stuttering, soaking wet drums all straight out of Janet Jackson’s “Nasty.” Somehow, it went to #19 on the UK singles chart, and perhaps it’s this success that set the precedent for the embarrassing stuff that followed.

When O’Sullivan left and Bananarama continued as a duo, they got into a habit of rerecording the song near the dawn of each new decade in the style of whatever prevailing wind had been blowing the last couple years. “Cruel Summer (2001 remix)" was a really gross and cheesy attempt at jumping on the Latin pop fad of the late 90s—looped pianos, horns, congas, the works. Then came "Cruel Summer ‘09,” which was all heavy synthesizers and four-on-the-floor beats befitting the resurgence of rave and the chart dominance of club music. Neither of these versions made any kind of commercial impact (and certainly no critics were talking about them), but they beg the question: were Bananarama ever anything but pop ambulance chasers who got lucky for a few years? Is this a knowing nod to the elasticity of pop music? A desperate attempt to assert some measure of relevance? Bananarama have sold over 40 million records worldwide—they’re smart enough to know that playing a song that made them money 30 years ago in a style that’s making money today isn’t going to somehow snowball into more fame and money, right? So why would they keep trying to revamp one of their classic songs if it only serves to illustrate just how irrelevant they’ve become to the charts they once dominated?

To me, the real tragedy of “Cruel Summer” is that the wonderful new wave sound of the original came full circle in the 2000s while Bananarama were busy trying to catch up to mainstream pop. It’s been an undeniable influence on hip, young acts like Grimes, Sky Ferreira, Blood Orange, or Glasser. That original 1983 version of “Cruel Summer” stands up remarkably well today—it fits right in there with Tears for Fears or The Human League—but almost no one acknowledges it because Bananarama’s early 80s tongue-in-cheek playfulness has been lost to three decades of slowly turning the song into a sad joke.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Bon Voyage
"West Coast Friendship"
Bon Voyage (1998)

Growing up in an evangelical Christian household in the 1990s, your early flirtings with pop music come through a strange, mediated mix. There are inescapable hits on the radio—the celebrity pop and of-the-moment flash points that even the most sheltered suburban kids still encountered—but there is also this other culture of Christian rock with its own rules and scenes that seeps in underneath. It has multiple purposes: to act as a firewall against the corrupting influences of secular culture, but also to stand in for it, providing an acceptable proxy whereby Christian kids can still listen to “rock music” like all their peers while remaining ignorant of whatever non-Christian viewpoints were being expressed out in the world. This all gets compounded in the mid-90s, when the industry for contemporary Christian music explodes just after mainstream attention to alternative rock reaches its fever pitch. It adds a new layer to the message: this is the real “alternative,” guys, not participating in modern culture’s glorification of sex, drugs, and violence.

That’s kind of an agnostic, NPR-journalism perspective on this stuff. It’s the way most people write about Christian rock and I understand why. There are a lot of dark sides to it: intense hypocrisy, massive amounts of money, and essentially teaching kids to fear and shun the very world their faith hopes to redeem. In order to decode and explain it, you have to put yourself above it in some way and there’s an unfairness to that, a snobbery and a condescension that assumes the level of cynicism which guides a lot of the industry around Christian rock also guides the bands and victimizes the kids. That assumption does prove depressingly true in most cases, but it ignores the other purpose of this sidelong culture: to speak uniquely to and about the experiences of people of a certain faith. If it was only about the parental fencing-in of pubescent curiosity, it wouldn’t be as huge, profitable, and long-lasting as it has been. Whether or not it’s motivated by fear and conservatism (and I believe it largely is), it also provides a lot of comfort to flawed people who find themselves trying to live out something that is, at its core, pretty incompatible with the rest of the world.

Because there’s so much emphasis on lyrical content—making sure the words say the right things, things which don’t always make for great emotional pop music in the sense that modern people understand it (ironic since gospel was one of the foundational pillars of rock ’n roll, yes?)—the music tends to be uninspired to the point of absurdity. There’s a lot of truly awful, generic crap out there. Between the bland sounds, family values, and cultural insularity, getting tagged as a Christian Band is a kiss of uncool death for anyone who aspires to locate their art outside of the Christian cultural bubble (or even to write about anything outside the parameters of evangelical ideology). That’s why you have this small clutch of artists who take a weird stand by what appears to be splitting hairs: we’re not a Christian band, we’re Christians in a band. It’s a subtle positioning move that, in this world, makes a big difference in how artists are perceived. Whether or not a secular audience buys the line depends on a lot of different factors (what label you’re on, how closely your songs hew to spiritual themes, how stylish/arty/epic/popular your music is, how often and how closely you associate with “actual Christian bands,” etc.) It’s a difficult position for an artist to be in. There have been pop crossovers like Amy Grant and Owl City and art-rock weirdos like Sufjan Stevens and Danielson who come away with secular credibility, but there’s also Switchfoot, mewithoutYou, and a host of emo and metalcore bands who don’t.

So, being a young teenager in the mid 90s and living under the influence of this complex alternative Christian culture, the hair-splitting bands can end up being the ones who help you bridge the gap between worlds and start to tie all of your disparate musical experiences together under one roof. Tooth & Nail Records is a historic label here in that they simultaneously propagate the embarrassing “if you like [mainstream band], try [Christian band]” substitutionism while keeping a couple of these moodier, less explicitly evangelical “bands of Christians” around. The doomy, slurry David Bazan’s Pedro the Lion project started here before signing to emo stalwart Jade Tree.

One of Tooth & Nail’s first signees and longest-running bands was Starflyer 59, who played an anomalous blend of shoegaze, slowcore, and new wave (all very uncommon genre influences in Christian rock to boot). There was a dreamy, far-off feeling to Jason Martin’s voice that, though not psychedelic enough to be druggy, would point toward soporific introspection. He was a bummed-out SoCal kid who loved The Smiths and The Jesus & Mary Chain, and the immovable sadness in his deep coo was both a boon and a hinderance. Even when they were pushing muscular, almost classic-rock guitars, it ensured that Starflyer made ultimately plodding, downcast music. His songwriting chops were decent and his arrangements were full and well-textured, but the band was never going to speak with the same force and effect that Martin’s musical heroes did, even if just to Christian kids. They’re a cult act within Christian rock and a post-shoegaze footnote outside of it.

Maybe that’s why Martin started so many side projects. He’s put out records under different names while working with his brother, with members of other bands he’d toured with, and with his wife, Julie, as Bon Voyage. In the 2000s, Bon Voyage morphed into a basic synth pop band, but in the mid-to-late 90s when they signed to a Tooth & Nail subsidiary and released their first bits of material, the only difference between them and Starflyer 59 was the switch from a male singer to a female one (and maybe turning the guitars down a little). Julie Martin’s voice is, strangely, an exact female translation of her husband’s: a pillowy, half-whispered coo, like a high-pitched Bilinda Butcher. As an affable guitar pop band, Bon Voyage also ended up providing Jason with an outlet for some of his more ‘risqué’ material, i.e. love songs to and about Julie for her to sing. Christian bookstores actually refused to sell their self-titled debut album because of the song “Kiss My Lips” (no one does cultural paranoia quite like conservative evangelicals). “Come on, baby, kiss my lips / Love me like I want you to / Keep me up all night / if you make it right.”

“West Coast Friendship” is much more of a signature song for the Martins than “Kiss My Lips,” though. Both Bon Voyage and Starflyer 59 recorded similar versions of it, the Starflyer take consigned to an EP track while the Bon Voyage version was used in label promo compilations, making it the de facto lead single from the album. It’s a song that strafes against itself a little bit, the vocal melody wanting for a more upbeat backdrop, but the guitar hook needing rhythmic space to let each melancholic note speak. This style is Jason’s bread and butter, but in Julie’s hands it takes on a new wistfulness. It’s already a vague and nostalgic song—“Things were better then, we’d never met / And you just leave that part of myself / These are the best days of our lives”—and through her rather stoic delivery it begins to paint a forlorn, deadpan emotional state. Friends come and go quickly when you’re young. If your own mistakes don’t drive them away, then simply growing up and growing apart usually does it. The part of you that gets attached to others has to grow some thicker skin so it doesn’t hurt so much when life pulls you apart, but in the process of learning to block the bitter you lose some of your sensitivity to the sweet. That’s why these are the best days of our lives: you can still feel those sweeping feelings to their fullest.

A lot of teenagers go through what they retroactively call in their twenties a “Jesus phase.” Maybe it’s because, at such an emotionally vulnerable time, the promise of finding your place and your identity in a confusing world is comforting. Maybe it’s because so much Christian evangelism is focused on youth with the idea of getting to them before they have a chance to go out into the world and make adult-sized mistakes (or even just settle into themselves and their habits). And maybe it ends up being a phase for many because Christianity turns out to be a very difficult thing to live by with real humility, compassion, and self-awareness. Christian rock has a shelf life for a lot of people too. As a teen, once you start looking to bridge the gap between subcultures and understand the music of your life in context, you realize the larger history of pop music has much more diverse and evocative avenues than something so rigorous is built to handle (you also realize how overwhelmingly white and male the whole thing is). Most importantly, you’re confronted with the question of how and why anyone draws the line between them, and the odd shame of trying to clumsily fit yourself in there somehow, somewhere.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Jo Stafford
"You Belong to Me"
(1952)

Pop criticism has dismantled a lot of the narrower ideas around the ‘-ism’ of rock (stupid terms, I know, but they’re what we’ve got for right now), but culturally we have yet to drill down to the core of what songs are and aren’t. Historically, they’re malleable, salable, tradable things that get passed around and reinterpreted. A song is like a costume a performer slips into for one part of the show. It can be tempting to go technocratic and assume that the rise of recorded sound killed off this way of approaching songs—today we’d call them ‘standards’—but records were only the medium, not the event. The event was Elvis Presley. Look at just a couple years before he came along, in the late summer of 1952, when Jo Stafford, Patti Page, and Dean Martin all had versions of this song in the top 20.

Think about it: three famous singers all jockeying for airplay with the same song at the same time. This would never happen today. The closest thing we have to this kind of system are Idol-style TV competitions, and though those do often have real impacts on the pop charts, it doesn’t seem that most viewers turn on their televisions every week hoping to find their next record purchase. It’s more about armchair quarterbacking and, of course, the delicious schadenfreude of watching your fellow fives fail spectacularly at becoming tens.

Dean Martin’s recording sounds about like you’d expect: he flips some lines around and slurs his words and generally sounds too preoccupied with being drunk and winking at you—Hey there, *hic* I’m Dean Martin ;)—to really deliver an exciting performance. Patti Page’s version was the first and is still one of the most famous given that “You Belong to Me” has been covered by just about every musician to ever draw breath, but her take is a bit stiff and saccharine next to Jo Stafford.

Stafford’s performance knocks me over every time I hear it. The song itself is certainly strong enough to have endured as a standard, but what she does to it is so nuanced, emotional, and three-dimensional you’d think she was living that longing right in the moment. She never sings a line the same way twice, using her inflection to stretch and bend the notes, creating this strangely controlled melodic chaos that lures the listener into each word. The tonal dips and dives give deep heft to the lyrics, which were originally written to sound like a letter to a beloved soldier off fighting in World War II. Underneath the fantastical images of sliver planes and tropical islands is the knowledge that the world is a vast and dangerous place. Underneath the pleas for faithfulness, to “remember all the while you belong to me,” is the implication of another plea: come back to me in one piece. So the song wraps all these things up in jazzy horns and marimbas, adding to Stafford’s performance an exotic, almost slinky twinge. The layers of meaning and the cool restraint all around—no big orchestral crescendos or Whitney Houston notes from Stafford—make it a pop song capable of speaking both to its exact moment (it went to #1 on both sides of the Atlantic) and, well, to anyone who’s ever missed someone.